B.C. needs strategy now to deal with pandemic restrictions fatigue

It is good that the premier and his health minister, and not the public health officer, have taken the lead in enforcing discipline in how the province is behaving during the pandemic.

Dr. Bonnie Henry had this role foisted on her, and it is more properly the domain of John Horgan and Adrian Dix to summon the necessary authority so that we paint inside the lines instead of taking the Jackson Pollock approach. Still, we seem to be asking and not ordering.

Even so, the enforcement is only part of the picture and misses an important point about why so many people seem so willing to take so many risks and put so many others in possible harm’s way.

It isn’t simply that they are flagrant offenders, it’s also possible that they’re flagging offenders. The violations of the guidelines might be their mental fatigue with restrictions coming out sideways and at times incomprehensibly.

The pandemic was called a marathon early on, and now we are finding that it wears on you the way a marathon wears on you. You might think you’re sufficiently resilient to scale the beckoning hill or defy the headwind, and physically you might be right – it’s the mental capacity that’s insufficient. It’s a big reason, in my experience as a lamentable runner, that you hit the wall. And once you’ve hit it, good luck getting through it.

I’ve lost count of the businesspeople who have told me in recent weeks that, around the time the skies turned grey this autumn, there was a perceptible swing in the mood, motivation and methods within their operations. There was an evident sag in any swagger people had.

The coping capacity so evident in the summer gave way to a forlorn resignation of the restrictions to recreation that cold weather brings on. It was another phase of this marathon, one we all know will not get prettier. But, much as the province has focused on financial assistance and economic recovery, we have been left mostly to our own devices on our mental health. We are all agreeing there is a challenge and all agreeing we haven’t got a full-fledged plan.

The province is providing some very useful online resources, but the range of coaching and counselling is a second-best strategy when we have been restricted in our socializing for more than eight months. While businesses have stepped in with third-party services for their workforces, government set the rules and now has an obligation to see those rules through with a framework for mental health maintenance.

There are easy starting points. Much as the Vancouver Coastal Health and Fraser Health Authority boundaries are now under a two-week curtailment, the province is going to have to relent in much of British Columbia on one-size-fits-all edicts. There are parts of the province that have just not known the pandemic, yet they’re pinned down in the same way that the most infectious regions are. Part of the frustration I hear from businesses in those non-pandemic places is that the application of rules is mentally wearying, piling on resentment on the economic penalties.

Even in regions with a high case count, the province is going to have to find its ingenuity to navigate the risk of infection against the risks that come with loneliness, depression and other mental health challenges. A daily case count is important to understand, but so would be the support at our disposal. We have been far better at calculating the hard business losses than the declines in our productivity and commitment that are the features in good times due to positive mental health. Perhaps because there are no easy answers, we are not trying to answer the difficult questions of how we keep people from regressing.

A second opportunity is for the Horgan government to do much more with the cabinet portfolio it created in the last term on mental health and addictions. The first version felt like a weak subsidiary of the health portfolio, yet in the pandemic it ought to be given more of a mandate tethered not only to health but finance ministries to recognize the social and economic value of a mental health strategy in this and future pandemics.

What is clear is that we are hitting the wall far earlier in this marathon than might be typical. Government commitment will need to be tangible, not just for those who have experienced mental health challenges but those entering unfamiliar territory. Nothing short of a holistic health approach will position the province post-pandemic. To date, unfortunately, the words and deeds are falling short. The restrictions are compounding problems, but a strategy would be a welcome sign. •

Kirk LaPointe is publisher and editor-in-chief of BIV and vice-president, editorial, of Glacier Media